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Welcome or Not Welcome: Off the Air Thoughts

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I was asked to be a guest on a local NPR affiliate show today with Amanda Hess (in a previously recorded interview) and Emily Graslie (with me in the second half). Each of us has had things to say recently about women… women and online harassment, women in science communication, women and tokenism. As the host admitted when I got there, it was a wide-ranging topic. And so it was kind of awkward, and hard to know how much detail to go into, and hard, frankly, to keep switching gears. To a listener uninformed or blind to the ways in which women are treated online and in the workplace, I’m not sure the show accomplished much, aside from exposing them to three very different cases where (white) women were mistreated because of their gender, and also kinda talking about the racist and misogynist trolling and harassment of Chancellor Phyllis Wise.

Trying to cover all of these things at the same time led, to my mind, to a show about very little. I say this with respect for the difficulty of talking about sexism and figuring out how and where to bound it. After all, it’s part of the daily lived experience of every human on the planet. And part of the failure, on my end, is that I have almost no radio experience, so my abilities surely compromised the show.

So here’s some of what I wanted to say, and I also offer some ideas about how mainstream media outlets can try to keep talking about women.

Targets and bystanders

I have been targeted some for various things I have said on the internets. Sometimes it’s because I have been critical of some science, sometimes it’s because I have taken offense to misogynist behaviors. Once it was just because I conceived a baby in an increasingly common way. I’ve had drive-by rape threats, mansplaining, tone policing, at least one of every comment you can find on your average sexist bingo card. These attacks sting when they happen – less when it’s nobody I know, more when it’s somebody in my online or academic communities. And every time they happen, I get a little less excited about having a web presence and sharing my thinking about science, or the life of science.

But to my mind, the bigger issue here is what happens to the bystanders who witness these events. Emily Grasile made this point in the interview quite well when she said she didn’t want young girls watching her videos and being delighted, then seeing the comments and realize what they’d be up against if they wanted to make videos too. I have had a number of experiences with junior women in the sciences who see what I go through and tell me they will never do what I do. And what I get is small potatoes compared to the wider world of gendered harassment and violence online.

Harassment silences targets, but it also silences bystanders and there are many more of them.

The three hundred ways I wanted to take this conversation

Sure, I can tell stories, and Amanda and Emily can too. I can tell you about the colleague who decided to use violent imagery and metaphors to imply he was punching me in the face. Or the anonymous peer review who referred to my research participants as “these ladies.” The commenter who implied I should be raped by my brother in law. And I think sharing all these stories scratches some kind of sensational itch for people – it’s a chance to live for a moment through women who get attacked for being women. The listener gets to decide how he or she would have handled it, gets to judge the seriousness of the matter and whether we should be allowed our anger, gets to police our tone and, even as he asks for more information, gets to judge us for telling our stories at all.

But here are some other conversations worth having, rather than trying to mash them all together. They each need their own hour or ten.

  • How does the online harassment of women limit their engagement in the public sphere? In what ways, as Amanda Hess suggests, is this a civil rights issue?
  • How do intersecting oppressions influence the experience for women online? When are we going to hear, for instance, more women of color in mainstream media? As Danielle Lee has pointed out only today, when are we going to start addressing the whiteness of journalistic sources, speaker panels, and more?
  • What are the ways in which online misogyny and racism obscures legitimate places for us to talk and disagree? When Chancellor Wise chose (or rather, some committee probably chose) not to cancel classes Monday, many parents of school-age kids in my Facebook and Twitter feeds wanted to engage with the campus about how keeping it open made it an unfriendly workplace for them. They couldn’t have this conversation because students were making vicious character and identity attacks on Chancellor Wise.
  • When some spaces – say, journalism, politics, science, or tech – are chilly spaces for women, what are the consequences? And are we talking about the privileged blindness that makes a place feel unwelcome, the kinds of harassment and assault that actively pushes women out, or both? Who leaves, but also, who never showed up to begin with?

What other conversations are worth having, and how can we encourage more news outlets to have them with us?

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. ssellers 8:31 pm 01/29/2014

    I haven’t listened to the radio piece, but wanted to share thoughts on this excellent post, and at first glance, I see a couple of key issues worth addressing.
    First, I perceive the discourse around misogyny as increasingly linked to racism in the sense that there is very often a denial among journalists and politicians that it has any significant role in harming women. Just as “racism is over” according to many a pundit (or self-proclaimed internet pundit), women can vote, wear pants, get (government supported!) contraception, so why are they still complaining about how they’re treated? Furthermore, I worry that there is a perception that much as racism is seen by many Americans as an excuse for the continued problems of many in the African-American community, that discourse around misogyny will become increasingly centered around notions that women are making excuses for their own failings and pushing for “special treatment” in the political realm. That even if misogyny exists (which it very arguably does), that bringing it up in the broader media could generate lots of pushback.

    A second key issue is that racism and misogyny are hard to quantify, which in a way reinforces the discourse cited in the previous paragraph, because oftentimes there’s little hard evidence that a particular action or statement was the result of sexist or racist attitudes. These terms get thrown around frequently, but I think many, especially in the media, are skeptical that their use is justified so often. Nobody wants to be labeled a racist or a sexist, and the more that these terms, which are very loaded, are used against people, the more I worry that both stifles and polarizes discourse. Part of the problem is that to a certain extent, racism and misogyny are the result of perceptions, and so discourse has the potential to get stifled unintentionally.

    A quick example: Jon Stewart interviewed Pres. Obama a few years ago, and Jon called the President “dude” as he first walked on stage. Many of the African-American WH staffers felt like Stewart was being at the very least disrespectful, if not racist, believing that a he would have treated a white president with more respect. Many of the white staffers felt differently, that Stewart was just taking advantage of the fact that the President is often portrayed as a youthful, laid-back kind of guy and talking to him accordingly. (Stewart later apologized to the President in private).

    I, as a white male, felt closer to the white staffers in this debate, but I see where the black staffers are coming from even if I don’t agree with their argument. Yet I, as a lot of people, don’t want to be labeled a racist, or a sexist, or any other kind of “ist” and I try not to be one. But I could easily think of examples where I’ve said things that I felt were benign (and still feel are benign), but in retrospect, I saw that they could be interpreted very differently by people who have had different life experiences.

    So as there is more discussion about how to get women, minorities, members of the LGBT community into public discourses, there should be lots of pushback against people being jerks and saying things that are clearly offensive, hurtful, threatening, etc, because those things are not only bad in and of themselves, but stifle the discussion and debate that is so important in science and other fields. But at the same time, I think there also needs to be needs to be a bit of understanding on all sides that some statements are interpreted in the way that was unintended by the speaker, and that the fear of being criticized or stigmatized can play a role in stifling discourse as well. And that’s especially true with electronic communication, which is very literal and comes without vocal intonation or other clues as to how the writer wants you to interpret it.

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